Implementing a Unified Enrollment System
Whether due to lack of information or having too many different schools to choose from, many parents today are struggling with school choice. To help simplify the school choice process, many cities are taking steps towards unifying enrollment through common applications and common enrollment systems.
We talked with Betheny Gross, a Senior Research Analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) about her research on the design and implementation of unified enrollment systems across the country.
You’ve researched school choice and unified enrollment systems across the country. What kinds of patterns have you seen emerge?
We’ve seen success stories as well as failures in getting unified enrollment systems – also called common enrollment systems – to the implementation stage. The common thread among the success stories is a deep sense of trust between the stakeholders. Sometimes the trust is already there, and sometimes it has to be built over time.
As a first, trust-building step toward common enrollment, some cities have begun by simplifying application and lottery timelines across schools in the city. When you align timelines, you eliminate the strategies that schools use to pre-empt and post-empt each other. For example, a school might deliberately open their application and hold their lottery earlier than other schools to try and shape the population of applicants. Sometimes schools will even hide their timelines so that only the most savvy parents can figure it out, as a passive form of creaming. The simple step of standardizing the timeline across schools provides an opportunity for collaborative decision-making among stakeholders, and a forum for discussing enrollment in the city. It’s a good “starter” activity. For example, Washington, DC began building support for common enrollment by creating a campaign among charter schools to voluntarily align on a shared timeline.
Then a second step toward common enrollment might be to standardize application materials for schools, which both Denver and New Orleans did before moving toward greater change. For example, that might entail creating a single common application form that is accepted by all schools.
Do these initial steps accomplish all of the goals of common enrollment?
No, but they get at some of them, and they create a foundation of trust and collaboration to work from. At CRPE we have a policy brief on stakeholder engagement, focused on New Orleans and Denver, which discusses these efforts in greater detail.
In addition to building trust between leaders on the district and charter sides and engaging key stakeholders, what other conditions are necessary for success in building a unified enrollment system?
Most importantly, you need to hear from families that common enrollment is something they want. That parent voice might take time to build, or it may already be well developed. For example, when John White was the Superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, he did a 100-day listening tour, and heard families say they were worried about being denied access to schools and other types of cheating within the enrollment system. Similarly, in Camden, Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard led a process of community engagement and heard from families directly about enrollment. Families are not likely to say they want a unified enrolment system, at least in those terms. But they may complain about the grey market for enrollment implicitly, by pointing to issues of fairness in the application and lottery process.
For successful implementation, cities need credible cross-sector people to be involved in the process. In our research we call them “boundary spanners” – they are people who have success in the charter sector as well as in school districts. In Denver, DC, and other places, it has been critical for these boundary spanners to be deeply engaged and championing the work. And you also need the commitment of leadership. If district or charter leadership is wavering, there’s nothing to hold the project together. When support for common enrollment in Denver was in danger of falling apart, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Boasberg came out with a strong statement in support. A critical member of his team – a boundary spanner named Alyssa Whitehead-Bust – started working her channels in the charter sector. Both were critical to keeping that initiative moving forward.
What other factors are important to note before implementing a UE system?
Having good information about schools is also a necessary condition for a healthy unified enrollment system. A third party organization could fly alone and publish materials based on public information. But a common set of information about schools for parents can also be developed as a collaborative effort, by securing input from all parties and setting some minimum standards. It will likely require lots of negotiation about the information presented.
Finally, a potential pitfall that can derail implementation efforts is the issue of governance. In other words, who will “press play” on the matching algorithm for the lottery? Who will have access to the demand data collected in the application? The bottom line is that local districts, in most cases, are the only agencies that have the capacity to take on such a transaction-intensive job. But where charters and districts are still navigating uneasy waters, it can be difficult for charters to place this control in the district’s hands. At the same time, setting up a new agency to run the enrollment system can take a lot of time and effort and can be very costly. This approach may not feasible given a city’s available resources or time. Different cities have been successful with different governance structures, but in each case, these have been tricky issues for cities to negotiate. To be successful, cities cannot ignore questions of governance for too long. We have a policy brief on governance which reviews how Denver, New Orleans and DC each handled these questions.
Thanks so much for your time, Betheny! Where can people find out more about your research?
CRPE’s research on common enrollment is collected here: http://www.crpe.org/research/common-enrollment
- It will likely take multiple steps over time to get to a full unified enrollment system. Potential interim steps include streamlining the application and lottery timelines for schools within a city, and standardizing application materials across schools.
- Trust is key. The most critical pre-condition for a unified enrollment system is trust between stakeholders. Initial steps, such as those listed above, can be used a trust-building activities.
- Support from families, credible cross-sector champions and commitment from leadership, good information about schools, and a clear governance structure are also necessary conditions for success in implementing a unified enrollment system.